England on a roll

By Richard Rae
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Roller hockey is the only game in town at Herne Bay, site of the world championship.

Roller hockey is the only game in town at Herne Bay, site of the world championship.

Zonal or man-marking - the eternal dilemma of English sport. Well, on Wednesday evening England went one on one at the back and in their first big test dusted the Uruguayans 7-0.

It was the perfect European performance: wonderful one-touch ball control, retaining possession for 20 passes and more, shooting powerfully and accurately from distance, striking like lightning from close range. Somehow it came as no surprise to learn the team's head coach is Portuguese.

Of all the sports Britain invented in the 19th century and then watched resentfully as the world learned to play them better, none seems more unlikely than roller hockey; or that the game's English stronghold was, and remains, Herne Bay. "It really is the only game in the town," said England's shaven-headed playmaker Phil McVey as he signed autographs for two young boys from Kent."

Seventy-five years after the resort town staged the first European championship, the roller hockey world championship has come to Kent - and four members of the England team play for Herne Bay United.

To be more exact, they are the Group B world championship, because these days England must earn the chance to take on the best. That means finishing in the top four of the 15-nation tournament taking place, thus winning a place in Group A, the world championship proper if you like, which takes place in Argentina in September 2001.

The chances are good; England are as organised, technically proficient and professional, at least in their approach, as any team here - including Australia, the Netherlands, South Africa, Canada, Japan and South Korea. North Korea were scheduled to play, too, which would have been something of a political coup for the sport, but sadly they didn't turn up.

Argentina 2001, however, will be a very different prospect. While roller hockey - or rink hockey as it is sometimes known - is very much a minority sport in England, it is hugely popular elsewhere.

Argentina, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Brazil for example all run professional leagues; five-figure crowds pack purpose-built halls in Barcelona, Lisbon, Porto, San Juan and Buenos Aires, and top players can earn £80,000.

The names of the top sides are familiar - Barcelona, Novara, Porto, Benfica, Hurucan - the world's top sporting clubs all run roller-hockey teams. Herne Bay United are listed as 139th in the world club rankings, which puts the task facing Team England into some sort of context.

But we do have talent, a foreign coach - Juan Carlos Amaral of Portugal - and even a professional; Andrew Ashurst, who plays for the Spanish club Piera, scored a hat-trick against Uruguay.

Originally from Plymouth, Ashurst began skating when he was seven. "Like all kids, down at the local rink," he said. "I felt comfortable on skates the first time, and someone asked if I'd like to try hockey."

He was playing for Plymouth when he was spotted at a youth tournament in Spain. "A junior club in Vilafranca, Sant Ramon, invited me over," he said. "Mum and me went while Dad stayed in Plymouth, working for the Royal Navy, in case it didn't work out."

It did, in that Ashurst has made it through the schoolboy and junior ranks and on to the books of Vilafranca themselves, one of Spain's top clubs. This year they have loaned him to Piera to gain experience.

"When I first went to Spain," he said, "roller hockey was second only to football in Catalonia, though it's since been overtaken by basketball. There are three very rich clubs, including Barça, where players can earn big money. Otherwise it tends to be semi-professional.

"For me that's ideal; I'm at university in Barcelona, so training four days a week for a couple of hours every day is fine. As a team, England are certainly improving and it would be fantastic to match ourselves with the best in Argentina.

"But long term it will always be difficult to compete, firstly because we're so underresourced compared to the others, and secondly because their players play at a much higher level week in week out."

If all goes to plan England should be playing their semi-final tonight, a place in the world élite secure. It's even on television, a major step forward for a sport usually having to fight for every ounce of publicity - except in Herne Bay, obviously.